Monday, January 10, 2011

Your Body Just Hurts, And Other Cold-Weather Hazards, Part I

It seems that the first question I get from people back home—particularly those in California and Florida—relates to the weather.  “So, how cold is it?” they want to know.  My usual, short answer is that “it’s really, really cold.”   But that’s probably too elementary of a description from an aspiring writer devoting two blog posts to the weather and other related conditions, so let me try to do better. 

To begin, I just typed “cold” into and found some more colorful synonyms that quite fittingly express the kind of cold with which I’ve been dealing at one time or another during my travels through Russia and eastern Europe.  These include:  arctic, biting, bitter, blasting, cutting, freezing, frigid, glacial, numbing, penetrating, piercing, polar, raw, severe, sharp, shivery, and stinging.

But beyond mere words, perhaps the best way to convey the frigidity-factor is anecdotally.  Like by telling you that there were a couple of times in St. Petersburg when, after exiting a building, I actually looked down in a panic to make sure I was wearing pants.  I was, in each of these instances, wearing Thermosilk long underwear beneath a pair of jeans.  But because the freezing air apparently cut directly through my clothing, I spent a couple of confused moments thinking that somehow I had managed to walk outside naked from the waist down.

There had been much pre-departure talk and speculation concerning just how cold it would be in Russia.  In describing his brush with freezing temperatures, a friend said something like:  “It gets so cold, your body just hurts.”  I tried to imagine it, but sitting in the warmth of southern California at the time, I really couldn’t.  Recently, however, I believe I experienced a biting sliver of what he meant.

One day on a walk to the main post office in St. Petersburg, I paused outside St. Isaac’s Cathedral to take a photo of a car ostensibly decorated for a wedding.  I decided to remove my gloves in order to better handle the camera and hadn’t even snapped the shot when my hands began to pulsate with pain.  I immediately put the gloves back on, but it was too late.  It felt like a bee had stung each of my fingers, and no amount of warming or rubbing would alleviate the stinging sensation.  For the next ten minutes, I worried that the beginnings of frostbite had already set in.  The pain eventually subsided, but the memory stuck.  Needless to say that was the last time I foolishly exposed an extremity in the bitter cold.   Here’s the bee-sting shot, by the way:

In terms of specific numbers, in the last 30 days or so I believe the coldest temperature I experienced was -18 ° Celsius.  Of course I use Celsius here because they use Celsius here, which frankly has stymied my ability to gauge the weather conditions with any accuracy before proceeding outdoors.   Before leaving home, I ripped out a “Temperature Conversions” chart from an old day planner, and tried to make the appropriate calculations during my plane ride over.  The conversion instructions state, in relevant part:  “To convert Celsius into Fahrenheit, multiply by 9, divide by 5, and add 32.”  The problem was, the temperature at the time was -5 ° Celsius, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember how to multiply or divide negative numbers.   I suspect this is how I ended up in law school and using phrases like “in relevant part” in a blog post about the weather.

Fortunately, and other handy internet-based converters were able to do the math for me.  Soon I came up with my own working temperature chart, wherein 5 below in my mind meant that it would be a bearable day; 10 below meant that I would have to wear most of the clothing in my backpack simultaneously; and 15 below would require me to come up with a very compelling reason to leave the hostel.  For me, going in search of a decent cup of coffee often qualified as compelling, and I only hoped that the troublesome and confusing “wind chill factor” wouldn’t somehow screw up my calculation and send me running for the indoors.

From a psychological rather than physical perspective, the constant need to bundle up has caused me to develop a condition that I have dubbed Winter Traveler OCD, or WTOCD, for short.  During a visit to the mall on my second day in Russia, I heard a man from behind yelling something in Russian as I was approaching the mall’s exit.  I turned to see in his outreached hand one of my new cashmere gloves, which must have dropped from my pocket without my noticing.  From that day forward I have spent countless minutes, if not hours, feeling for and touching my gloves and hat and scarf—each a cherished pre-trip gift—to ensure they are still in my possession.  I’ve since had several close calls with dropping or leaving my gloves behind in various establishments.  Thankfully each time the WTOCD returned me to the scene in time to recover them, so it hasn't necessarily been a bad thing.  And just in case one of my winter essentials goes missing, I’ve taken the following “Have You Seen Me?” photo:

Well, that's a wrap on Part I.  Now I must turn to some other personal and business matters, being it’s a Monday, and sometimes I like to pretend that I have a regular life.  Please stay tuned for Part II of “Your Body Just Hurts And Other Cold-Weather Hazards” wherein I will post my current slip-and-fall count and discuss generally other unsafe conditions that abound on account of the weather.